Cigarette ?

A moment lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina by Joseph Alexander, a traveller from Ireland

Excuse me – Cigarette?

I turned to see three faces staring back at me, one of which belonged to a body holding out a cigarette for me. I paused for a second before switching on, accepting the cigarette and thanking him.

I was sitting on a train moving between Sarajevo and Zagreb. I was still in the Bosnia section of the trip and was occupying a carriage with three men who had got on at the same station as me. I had initially offered them beers as a conversation starter but they had declined. They didn’t seem keen to speak so I left it at that and began writing about Sarajevo. What an incredible city with a tragic history. I was travelling around eastern Europe in order to better understand the breakup of Yugoslavia. I had consumed documentaries and articles about it but being there was a totally different experience. It was far more visceral. The people I had met were incredibly open and warm, gracious and humble. I was moving on after three days there and vowed to return as soon as I could. (I was back in less than a year. I haven’t met anybody yet who hasn’t felt the city get a hold of them.)

The three men were all distinctly different and had a very relaxed dynamic, laughing often and constantly making jokes at each other’s expense. The man with the lightest skin, and youngest, spoke the best English. It was he who gave me the cigarette. He told me about how all three were studying agriculture in the University to get a better understanding of how to maximise profit on a farm. As the landscape whipped by the window, I could see people working the land by hand. They were all using tools – no machinery was in sight. Sunlight was fading quickly yet the people in the fields showed no signs of letting up.

After a few minutes of conversation in broken English I was asked what I was doing in Bosnia. I replied that I was travelling. Quizzical looks formed on their faces; how do you mean, what for? Travelling to see the country and just for experience. “I wish I could have that opportunity” was the response I got. A few minutes later, the train began slowing down and the men gathered their things. As we pulled into the station they offered me handshakes and smiles. I watched them amble off as the train began to move on. We were in a small, rural station about an hour from Sarajevo. This was their daily commute to try and improve life on a farm used mainly for subsistence.

I have never felt as privileged as I did that day. On the one hand, it was a fantastic experience speaking with them but, on the other hand, I felt a little lost as to what travelling really means. It seemed an extravagance in that moment to move so frivolously whilst the people I encountered and would speak of later as characters in my stories toiled in an economy set up against them. As time has passed those lingering feelings of guilt have faded and when I think of those men I remember fondly their easy laughter and the courtesy they had extended to me. My appearance in their carriage had definitely confused them and yet they were very open and friendly, sharing their food and drink.
Sometimes travelling is a bewildering process, confronting us with situations that challenge what we think we know. It’s at moments like those that I think of these lyrics:
Life is hard, life is beautiful
Life is strange, and life is unusual

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